In the darkest days of December, Christmas markets are a fixture on the calendars of destinations large and small across Europe. While the markets of today shimmer and glow with the blaze of lights and decorations, the medieval origins of many are rooted in a much more utilitarian past, a time when they offered only basic provisions to passers-by during deep winter. Evolving from these modest beginnings into ever more festive and elaborate affairs, the Christmas market as we now know it continues to draw visitors winter after winter. From the most traditional to the slightly off-beat, this is a round-up of some of the best Christmas markets that Europe has to offer.
Traditional Christmas Markets in Europe and Beyond
The first recorded “December markets” took place in Austria and Germany in the 13th and 14th centuries, respectively, and given this, it’s hardly surprising that these two countries now dominate the modern festive scene for sheer numbers of Christmas markets. If you want a market with historical pedigree, the Vienna Christkindlmarkt — running until Christmas on the city’s Rathausplatz or town square — traces its origins back to 1298. In Dresden, the city’s Striezelmarkt — which runs until Christmas Eve — dates from 1434 and is considered by aficionados to be the world’s first true Christmas market. The festive markets of Salzburg, Munich, Frankfurt, Nuremberg, Cologne, and Dortmund — which runs until 30th December and features the world’s tallest Christmas tree — all offer their own claim to fame. The German capital of Berlin is dotted with more than 70 individual markets, each of which has its own unique character.
But for those not able to make it to mainland Europe, Birmingham’s Frankfurt Christmas Market — which sprawls across Victoria Square and down New Street until 23rd December — prides itself on being the largest and most authentic German-style Christmas market in the UK. Until 11th December, Bath offers a full festive experience against the striking backdrop of the city’s famous Gothic abbey. Winchester, Lincoln, York, Edinburgh, and London all feature their own Christmas markets which — while they may lack the deep historical roots of their continental counterparts — have become attractions in their own right over the years.
Presided over by ornate nativity scenes and festoons of lights, all feature the Christmas market traditions that visitors eagerly anticipate year after year: that is, pretty wooden chalets offering locally-made crafts and ornaments, stalls selling mulled wine by the ladle, decorated gingerbread, candied nuts, and sizzling sausages. Over the years, ice rinks, rides, live music, and entertainment have all become part and parcel of what many visitors expect from their Christmas market experience, wherever they may be.
Of Caves and Bunkers: A Tale of Alternative Markets
But if the crowds, the noise, and the endless twinkly twee of a conventional Christmas market really aren’t your thing, that’s fine. Even in the space of a busy December, there are calmer, quieter, and quirkier places to tap into that festive feel, with smaller, out-of-the-way destinations and venues offering an ideal solution for those looking for alternative Christmas market ideas.
Those ready to do things differently have until 8th January to make for the southern Dutch town of Valkenburg, where the local Christmas market is set deep inside a series of caves that radiate out from underneath a ruined castle. If you like these subterranean vibes, the Grič Tunnel in Zagreb is also worth consideration. A bunker turned into a pedestrian throughway, each Advent sees this space become a festive forest complete with giant nutcrackers and snowy pines. But for those who just want a conventional Christmas market experience with fewer crowds, the French town of Colmar offers all the charm without all the hustle of nearby Strasbourg. But if you do feel like braving the latter city — rather than heading to its main Christmas festivities on the Grande Île — make for Strasbourg’s OFF Market, which sells antique and second-hand gifts, decorations, toys, and more until 24th December.
Moving away from mainland Europe, the UK offers plenty of alternative Christmas options. If space is your thing, the illuminations at Blenheim Palace weave in and out among the estate’s many acres, giving room to roam until 31st December. When you’re ready to bring it in again, the palace’s Christmas market is set inside the spacious Great Court. For a more diffused experience, visitors can dip in and out of Manchester’s many festive markets, which are dotted around the city’s streets and squares for most of December. And finally, for something very different indeed, make for the Montol Festival in Penzance, Cornwall, on 21st December. Part fair, part parade, and part pagan ceremony, this local party is the chance to celebrate Yule the old-fashioned way.
Whether you’re entranced by the buzz of some of Europe’s most famous Christmas markets or intrigued by the alternative underdogs of the festive calendar, December needn’t be dull. A kind of tonic against the long, dark days, Christmas markets — be they large or small — offer a bright antidote to the drab of winter and a dab of joy just when we need it most.
Images courtesy of:
Frankfurt Christmas Market UK